More MSOs Use Web Sites: But How Well?

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When Multichannel News first started to
keep track of MSOs' Web sites, the list was a short one. These days, it's the rare MSO
that doesn't have a presence on the Internet.


But a tour of several dozen sites - including the 23 featured below in individual reviews
- shows that MSO's don't always have a clear vision for their sites, or convey that vision
to the user. Is the site a corporate communications tool? Is it a way of providing
customer service? Is it a sales and marketing device? Is it an employment clearinghouse?


The best sites incorporate all of those roles and employ a coherent design, meaningful
content and appropriate use of software. Some one-dimensional sites, such as Comcast's
corporate site, are well-organized and well-designed but leave the user who wants or needs
more at a loss. Others try to be many things without doing any particularly well.


Some shine in one or two areas, but aren't able to replicate that success across the
board. Nearly every site could benefit from a copy editor. Whichever the case, most Web
sites are a work in progress - and those for MSOs are no exception.


The most disappointing sites were ones that failed to grow during the past year.
Cablevision earned a rating of five again, not because it kept the same design, but
because it built what came before. Classic, last year's other five, slipped because it
wasn't updated enough. Bresnan, which seemed so promising last year, slipped nearly a full
point because it didn't deliver on its promise.


Several companies revamped their online image: Cox upgraded its look and its content, as
did TCI and Harron Communications, which could take a prize for most improved - if we gave
one.


Among this year's trends: More sites are using ZIP code searches, providing consumers with
access to personalized content. Most public companies are making the most of accessibility
to stock quotes and online financial information. With advances in browsers, more Web
masters are experimenting with Java, Shockwave and the like. Online customer service forms
are so prevalent that it stands out when a site doesn't have one. Online job postings have
become staple items, as more sites add job-search engines and online applications.

The following Web sites were rated on a scale of 1 to 5
with five areas in mind: style, usability, content, customer service and business
information. The score given with each review represents an average of ratings in the five
areas. The primary review computer was a Gateway PII450 with 128 megs of ram, a 19-inch
Sony monitor and an ISDN connection.

Adelphia Cable
http://www.adelphia.com

The site's slogan is "Your Link for Everything" and Adelphia means it. Using
bold images of various corporate endeavors, the front page allows visitors to head
directly to the area they are most interested in: long distance, digital cable, high-speed
Internet access, paging or Adelphia's ISP. Click on the word "link" and you get
"Digital Destinations" - links to broadcast and cable network sites, among
others.

But the presentation doesn't ensure success. For instance, clicking on digital cable
brings up a stylish page of digital offerings, but choosing the link urging you to
"call your Adelphia office today" only sends you back to the front page. The
long-distance link offers a phone number to sign up, but no online option. Same goes for
high-speed Internet access.

An online job search divided by categories adds a useful dimension. The corporate area
includes access to thorough investor information, stock market material, financial
documents in Adobe Acrobat format and archived press releases.
Rating: 3.6

Bresnan Communications Inc.
http://www.bresnan.com

Still snazzy in appearance, the site hasn't grown nearly enough since last year's review.
For instance, the front page continues to tout the NCTA/Tech Corp.'s "Web
Teacher" package as "new." The community highlights page promises more, but
for now it's just a list of addresses and phone numbers.

No e-mail addresses, no links. No real information about the communities Bresnan serves.

Some decisions make very little sense. Users apparently are supposed to intuit that
clicking on "What's Hot" for "News From Bresnan" will deliver, among
other things, Bresnan's "Picks of the Net," "Cable in the Classroom,"
and media literacy. The "Customer Care Kit" explains Bresnan's policies, but
customers who want to offer feedback or ask questions will have to go back to the
community page and use the information there to make a phone call or write a letter.

Much is right with this site, but much, much more is possible.
Rating: 3.3

CableComm/Fanch Communications Inc.
http://www.cablecomm.com

This umbrella site for Fanch's CableComm systems provides links to a half-dozen local
sites, each with its own distinct personality. Fanch manages 350 systems in 21 states, so
the list seems sparse. This site could use a good image map of the locations and coverage
area.

The front page is almost amateurish and at times, its organization seems haphazard. Still,
consumers will find some of the content very useful, including a customer handbook with
connection diagrams. And CableComm offers an online feedback form that includes questions
that will help shape the site as it grows.

Jobs are posted online, but there is no online application. The flashy Johnstown site -
the Webmaster is in love with Shockwave and Flash 3 - looks more corporate. Meshing the
content of the corporate site with a slightly toned-down Johnstown look could be a good
solution.
Rating: 2.8

Cable One
http://www.cableone.net


Ad sales, ISP sales and customer service are the main themes. The front page is a tad too
long and a bit too busy, but gets the job done. With a quick scan of the to-the-point
categories, visitors can head directly to the right area.


Those just coming online might prefer to start with the "new to the Internet"
tutorial. Memo to the Webmaster: Great service, but not everyone uses Microsoft Internet
Explorer - even if that is the browser of choice for the CableOne ISP. Adding some
instructions for Netscape Navigator would enhance a laudable effort.


Online ISP sign-up is another plus; the site also offers fairly deep online technical
support for the ISP.


Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for cable services. Off-site links are limited, but
each system has its own channel lineup with links to networks and to local affiliates.
Though still under construction, the ad-sales area is in some ways miles ahead of many
other sites.


CableOne understands that advertisers want more than an e-mail address to ask for more
information. Rate cards and coverage maps are a good start.

Rating: 3.3

Cablevision Systems Corp.
http://www.cablevision.com


One of last year's top sites continues to grow. Among the most recent updates: the text of
editorials from Cablevision's systems in Long Island, Connecticut and Westchester. Readers
may respond to those views by filling out an online form.


There is also a Young Communicators micro-site, where high school students can post news
stories and teachers can get media lesson plans.


Cablevision's site is the only one reviewed in which the Webmaster is not only identified
by name - and, in this case, shown in caricature, but acts as a guide.
"Web-czar" Jennifer Thayer posts weekly messages about the site, encouraging
feedback, highlighting various aspects of the site, and offering a reassuring presence
with a light touch. More sites could benefit from ideas like this.


Cablevision has also pulled off, for the most part, the difficult task of being all things
to all people. The main site is a gateway to myriad stand-alone sites or micro-sites about
various facets of the huge corporation's operations.


In the customer service area, visitors can find the appropriate local office by typing a
ZIP code or clicking on an image map. Once there, the available information includes
customer service telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, a map and directions, and lists of
the hardware and services available at that location.

Rating: 5

Century Communications Corp.
http://www.centurycomm.com


A sleek front page that could be an entry in a Web design manual is marred only by a
ticker at the top promoting an outdated special for Century's BackStage Pass holders.
Links from a sharp nationwide image map of Century's cable systems lead to individualized
contact information and channel lineups that also can be produced in a printer-friendly
version using Adobe Acrobat's PDF format. Rates are not included.


The subscriber information area includes troubleshooting and setup tips, but there's no
apparent online customer interaction. There's an e-mail address on the front page, along
with the assurance that Century would like to hear from visitors, but no systematic way to
make it happen.


The corporate area looks good on the surface, with access to all the right documents,
including the 1998 annual report available in HTML and PDF formats. But a link titled
"Meet the people who head up the very large 'Century Family' " turns out to be
nothing more than a list of the board members and their titles.


Bios and pictures would be a plus here. Also, finding out about "operating
entities" around the world suggests you'll click into more than a snazzy map from the
annual report and a numbered list. Century also misses a chance to steer advertisers in
the right direction.

Rating: 3.7

Charter Communications Inc.
http://www.chartercom.com


It's tempting to give a site some leeway when the company is on a shopping spree.
Charter's up front with the fact that its Web site is a work in progress, but it's
impossible to ignore the Paul Allen factor. This site is surprisingly slender for an
outfit which calls itself "A Wired World Company" and is owned by a man who made
his fortune as a computer visionary. Allen's own site - www.paulallen.com - is slick and
information packed. Charter, however, isn't even mentioned on the front page, and the
information that is there isn't current.


"What's On This Month" brings up nothing but a months-old request to "stay
tuned." The "Charter Zone" has a 10-question TV trivia quiz that apparently
hasn't changed since early April. Don't look on the front page for news about mergers and
acquisitions, but "Charter News" has plenty of press releases. Plenty of room to
grow.

Rating: 2.8

Classic Cable
http://www.classic-cable.com


This site still looks good and works well. It should, since it appears to have been barely
touched since last year, when it was ranked one of the top sites. No new press releases
have been posted since 1998.


Links aren't being updated as often as they could be - a fact made obvious by following a
few and realizing the description on the Web page no longer fits. A little updating would
have kept this site on top.

Rating: 4.2

Coaxial Communications
http://www.coaxial.net/


The site has made some strides since last year, when Java applets routinely caused system
crashes for the reviewer. Unlike most of the cable sites, the front page is compact enough
to work well with screens as small as those on a laptop. Even though the front-page design
looks organized and up-to-date, the site is organizationally challenged and doesn't
deliver everything it promises.


The ad section looks deep - deeper than it really is in some places. It takes a password
from a salesperson to gain access to the rate section. The coverage map loads slowly -
when a graphic takes this long to load on an ISDN connection, you know it's slow. A job
application is promised, but not delivered.


Nice touch: a touch-tone cheat sheet for customer service.

Rating: 2.5

Comcast Corp.
http://www.comcast.com/


No visible changes since last year, but at least this site is updated regularly. Comcast's
site makes no pretense about providing customer service. It could improve as a corporate
site by adding a company-wide job search engine to its online applications and by
providing more information about its cable systems.

Rating: 3

Cox Communications Inc.
http://www.cox.com/


Cox has upgraded its site's look and content since last year's review. The result is a
better-looking, more effective site for consumers, advertisers and investors. Information
is divided into five categories - Home, Business, School, In Your Area, and Corporate
& Financial, with links for customer service, a site search engine, a site map and
feedback on every page.


This complex site has its woes - navigation can be confusing, especially once a visitor
wanders into a local system's area - but the pilot program for online customer information
is especially promising and the career network touted on the front page is one of the best
job sites in cable.

Rating: 4.5

Falcon Communications Inc.
http://www.falconcable.com


Maybe when Charter acquires Falcon it can pick up some of the finer points of its Web
site. (Finding out about the deal requires a visit to the press center.) The customer
service area, for instance, would make a nice addition. A Falcon account number allows
customers to check detailed billing information, order pay-per-view events online and
check pending PPV orders. The "Talk to Us" section encourages e-mail to a
divisional vice president or corporate headquarters. Each senior executive has a listed
e-mail address.


Service can be upgraded online or service calls can be requested, but new accounts still
require a phone call. A ZIP code search makes finding the right office a snap.

Rating: 4.5

Harron Communications
http://www.harron.com/


If MCN offered a prize for most improved site, Harron would be a finalist. The switch to
bright blue and gold as key colors and dividing the screen into four blocks for a
geometric flair produced a bold, attractive statement. It would be even better if it the
page were compact enough to avoid scrolling, but that's a small point. At least the Web
designer made good use of the real estate, offering a front-page ZIP code search for
system-specific cable info and an invitation to sign up for service online, in addition to
the usual links.


The design themes carry through from system to system, some with greater success than
others. VCR Plus codes are a nice touch.

Rating: 4.8

Helicon
http://www.helicon.net


The black background and slightly futuristic look of the gateway to Helicon's four Web
areas implies sophistication. But the next stop on the tour doesn't follow through on that
promise. It could - the basic design is there. But as a woman who adds one too many pieces
of jewelry can slip from stylish to junky, some designer couldn't resist adding elements
until the result was a mess of links capped off by a rotating ad from a search engine
partnership that looks way out of place. The front-page search engine is Web-wide, not
site-specific, as most might assume.


Clearly, a lot of effort has gone into the site. One example: Click on a movie or event in
the clever pay-per-view page and information pops up on a television screen. But it's too
inconsistent. Information is sparse and the Helicon mall doesn't follow through on its
potential.

Rating: 2.8

Insight Communications
http://www.insight-com.com


A clean, bright look marred only by an animated graphic competing with scrolling text.
Unlike some sites, where every click seems to bring up a new look, Insight's look is
consistent throughout - sans animation and scrolls. The consistency's there when it comes
to information, too. Each system has its own page with contacts, channel lineups and
available services. There are linked e-mail addresses for regional managers or district
vice presidents.


The business side could use more attention: the job listings are plentiful but unwieldy,
the advertising page is under construction and corporate background is minimal.


All in all, though, Insight has an attractive, solid foundation on which to build.

Rating: 3.8

Jones Intercable Inc.
http://www.jic.com/


The site promises to blend consumer and corporate needs. The front page is a concise,
clean design with access to a site search, current stock prices (the financials are hosted
by PR Newswire) customer info, press center, investor resources and job postings.


All of the systems are listed with contact information, but online interaction is missing.
Rates and pricing information requires phone or mail contact with the local office. In a
deft move, Jones offers an e-mail notification service for media outlets. The corporate
information is plentiful, although using PR Newswire adds layers and another browser
window. Despite the site-wide links to job postings, the company is not posting employment
listings online because that area is being redesigned.


Jones' "Watch & Learn" online media-literacy program makes the case for
using MSO Web sites as more than an address book or program guide. One more Jones note:
Jones@home [http://jones.home.com] promises amazingly
fast downloads if you sign up for the high-speed service. Maybe the crammed-with-elements
page is intentionally slow [even on ISDN] to show visitors why they need the service.


Rating: 3.6

MediaOne
http://www.mediaone.com


Another site which makes you wonder if some MSOs are trying to sell their broadband
service by producing slow front pages. Luckily for those without that option, the wait is
worth it, as was a return trip after the page crashed the first time around. The site map
can be used to navigate if Java is a problem; a front-page notice to that effect or,
better, the chance to make the choice before entering the site would be a great
improvement.


Unlike the sites of some companies in the midst of big deals, mergers are front-page news
here. The press center opens as a new window but, annoyingly, it won't allow resizing and
forces scrolling. The download area for executive photos and company graphics may be
unique among MSOs. It shouldn't be. This service could be improved by adding JPEG to the
list of file formats.


MediaOne SearchTV, a new programming search engine and guide, adds power. But the
advertising sales information is limited to contact phone numbers, and there's no e-mail,
with one exception.

Rating: 4.3

Media General Cable
http://www.mgcable.com


Busy and a little garish, Media General's site can be toned down by hitting the escape key
and stopping the animated Road Runner, used to tout high-speed Internet access, in his
tracks. Playing to its audience, Media General provides front-page links to updated soccer
and cricket schedules. The front page could be more effective and make a better visual
statement by reducing the number of links in the navigation bar.


Excellent troubleshooting. The community page offered little more than a few links on one
visit and didn't respond at all on a subsequent visit. Some details about advertising, but
no online media kit.

Rating: 4.1

Prestige Cable
http://www.prestigecable.com


Significant improvement over last year. An efficient site with online feedback forms,
well-organized programming links, and some other elements. Local information about rates,
advertising and channel lineups is funneled into micro-sites for each system.


Rating: 3.6

Suburban Cable
http://suburban.com


A pleasant, customer-oriented site that doesn't ignore its business responsibilities and
manages to also look good. That design includes a "contact us" link for feedback
in the top right-hand corner of every page and navigation links along the bottom. A
particular plus: the resizable page means the navigation tools are always available.
There's also a site map and the ability to personalize the site by plugging a ZIP code
into a Suburban service area.


The community area is broad and deep, making the best use of online resources. One
example: The winners of an art contest are posted on the site in thumbnail images that can
be enlarged with a click. The spotlight on customer service includes a front-page promo of
"satisfaction central."

Rating: 4.4

TCA Cable TV Inc.
http://www.tca-cable.com


Movement matters to someone at TCA. The front page sports a flashing bulletin about the
Cox buyout with a link to the press release, an animated graphic for a navigational tool,
and another animated graphic in the form of a vertical panel. The noise drowns out an
otherwise strong design. The navigational tool called SiteRemote is a clever idea which
gets lost in the translation. The nifty, remote-control-like mini window requires more
attention than it should. An always-on-top option might help.


Another navigation problem: some of the content pages are far too long. Just because
scrolling works doesn't mean it should be a necessity.Job applications can be printed out
and faxed in, but users can't apply online via e-mail or by using an online resume as is
the case at many other sites. The customer guide is online. Advertising is touched on but
details are at the site of TCA's cable advertising subsidiary.


Systems have pages based on a simple template for channel listings, hyperlinks to
networks, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail address and localized links to The Weather
Channel.

Rating: 3.6

TCI
http://www.tci.com


Last year's verdict for TCI was looks great, less filling. Luckily, only half that
statement holds today. More content doesn't mean enough, but it's a start. The front page
is simple and to the point with four key elements: TCI The Company, TCI in Your Area,
Questions and a ZIP code form for instant response on local customer services.


The ZIP code search brings up a list of communities covered; a channel lineup with links
to network sites (some networks are unlinked, despite Web presence); an explanation of the
bill, contact information (no e-mail address); and a FAQ that includes troubleshooting.
TCI's The Company could use some work. The last annual report is from 1997. The job bank
is detailed, but resumes must be faxed with cover letter and job code. The last "This
just in" had a December 28 date. Some page load times are incredibly slow. Nothing
more than press release info about AT&T; no clue about what that deal means for the
Web site.


But there's an online comment form for customer relations. Looks great. More filling.

Rating: 4

Time Warner Cable
http://www.pathfinder.com/corp/twcable


This is what happens when you're a cog in a huge machine: a section on the corporate Web
site that's little more than a blip. A press-release archive going back five years forms
the core. There's a link to a list of local division sites and links to other elements of
the corporate Web site that have something to do with the cable operation. A message at
the top of the page suggests sending comments or questions to the address on your bill, or
sending an e-mail message. The linked word "email" leads to a page with an image
map of the U.S. Click on a state, and an e-mail form pops up with the ZIP codes for Time
Warner systems in that state.


Other Time Warner properties manage to have full-fledged sites under the pathfinder.com
umbrella. A company that claims to have the "world's most advanced" cable
systems should be able to do the same.

Rating: 2.6

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